Cougars are competing for a top-seed in the Pac-12 tournament

This year’s Cougar men’s basketball team is better than last year’s, but you knew that already.

You can tell when you watch them play. You can tell from the energy that has been in Beasley during the last few home games. Watching Head Coach Ernie Kent communicate with his players on the sidelines, you can tell this team is better than last year’s historically terrible squad.

How much better will they finish in the conference? That’s a good question.

Before we look ahead, let’s reflect on last year’s team, as painful as it may be. The 2013-‘14 Cougars were last in the Pac-12 in scoring, averaging 62.4 points per game. On defense, they ranked third in the conference, only giving up 67.1 per game. They finished last in the Pac-12 North Division standings, last in the conference in attendance numbers, and entered the tournament as the 11th seed.

Unless you enjoy bad memories, I’ll stop there.

Statistics show that this year is not necessarily better or worse, but different. And after what Coug fans have watched the last few seasons, different is good.

The team is now ranked sixth in scoring offense, but last in scoring defense. So far, field goal, free throw and three-point shooting percentages have improved. As of today, the men’s team is No. 6 in the conference.

What these stats show us is that the team is getting better, but still has a long way to go to compete with the top contenders in the Pac-12. They have the ability to go on runs and upset teams that are more talented, like UW and Oregon, but this squad could just as easily collapse and lose to Idaho or be demolished by Stanford or Oregon State.

All of these things go out the window when the tournament starts. The Cougars would have to win three games straight to make it to the championship, and one more win would secure them their first ticket to the NCAA tournament since 2008.

Simply earning a top seed in the tournament would be a huge morale boost for the program. But more importantly, entering the tournament with several Pac-12 wins under their belt would give the Cougs the confidence they need to go on a streak.

But in order to get that done, the Cougs will need to start playing more consistent basketball. Winning a shootout may work every few games, like it did against Oregon, but you have to play defense to win. Look at Arizona last year, for example. That squad dominated teams on defense to make it to the Pac-12 championship game.

One thing the Cougars have shown us in conference play thus far is that they can remain competitive. They may not be the most talented or skilled team, but these guys will scratch and claw until the final whistle in order to get a win.

And if they can continue to beat the teams they should beat, while stealing an upset or two, we may see the Cougs with a top-five seeding come tournament time.